Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (First published January 2017)
The Short Version: Six clones wake up on a generation ship with twenty-five years of memory missing and their own dead bodies floating around, and things only get more interesting from there. Six Wakes is extremely readable, using its premise to great effect to build a great story as well as exploring the moral implications of technology and the ways we choose to control it.
Rating: 9 illicit personality modifications out of 10
I’m staying at my parents’ house in the UK for a month, which means my access to physical books and the internet services that can deliver them has suddenly taken a significant turn for the better. This year, a backfiring experiment with Kinokuniya Thailand’s book collection services meant I got to start the haul earlier, and add a kilogram of unnecessary extra weight to what was already a fairly ridiculous amount of luggage.
(This happens every time I go to Thailand. Every. Time.)
As I don’t want to carry any of these across more continents than strictly necessary, these are all top of my priority list – starting near the bottom of the pile with the lovely shiny* Six Wakes.
According to the author interview at the end of the book, Six Wakes was conceived while the author was playing FTL (Faster than Light), which is the science fictional equivalent of having two cool people who you met in totally unrelated circumstances turn out to be mutual friends. FTL is a game where the player takes a spaceship through multiple sectors of a hostile galaxy, upgrading weapons and defence and picking up crew members and other systems as you go. The advanced edition of the game lets you swap out your medical bay (for fixing up the inevitable missiles-to-face and accidental asphyxiations and boarding altercations which your crew suffer through), with a clone bay, which pops out a new version of the dead crewmate every time they expire; it’s this concept of cloning as a longevity method which Mur Lafferty uses to excellent effect in this book.
The book is set in a future hundreds of years after the invention of the technology on Earth. Society has readjusted with some violence and difficulty to the technology, with humans essentially now split between the classic single-lifespan variety and the clones, who are effectively immortal but subject to a strict set of legal restrictions, the Codicils, which prevent them having more than one copy of themselves active at a time and specify that the most recent version of a clone is the one with the legal right to exist, as well as banning all genetic manipulation between iterations of a clone — so no gender modifications or editing out genetic diseases from a person, unless you are going to an illegal hacker who can program anything they want into your mindmap. Clones regularly back up all of their psychological data and when performed under the right circumstances, they can time their death and reupload into a new body to leave no continuity gaps. However, if something goes wrong and a clone dies unexpectedly, they can lose days or weeks of memories that aren’t stored in the backup.
Things have obviously gone wrong by page one of the main story, when our nominal protagonist Maria wakes up in the clone bay of generation ship Dormire. She and the five other clone crew members all find themselves in new clone forms, looking at the murdered bodies of their past iterations. Moreover, as far as their memories are concerned, they have only just started their voyage; the ship’s date, on the other hand, makes it clear they are already twenty-five years into the voyage. The gravity is off, the AI is malfunctioning, the ship is significantly off course and the 3D printer which synthesises the crew’s meals refuses to print anything but hemlock. It’s up to the crew to get themselves back on track for the sake of the hundreds of humans and clones frozen in cargo, as well as piecing together what went wrong and who is responsible for the carnage they all woke up to.
As in any good mystery, it soon becomes clear that there are shady things lurking in the past of each and every crew member, as well as the traditional untrustworthy AI. Six Wakes builds its narrative through an omniscient third person narrator which switches between character viewpoints, as well as flashbacks to the crews’ lives in the lead up to being selected for the ship. Each crew member knows the others have volunteered for the mission because they are convicted criminals who will be pardoned upon arrival, but they have been told their crimes must remain confidential. From the ship’s doctor who was one of the original people cloned when the technology began, to the AI tech who has been on the verge of a breakdown since waking, to the shady machinations of the captain and the security officer, Six Wakes uses a small cast to great effect, with the world of the clones coming across as claustrophobic and restrictive even in background chapters set on Earth, thanks to both the Codicls as well as the inequalities and power struggles that arise from a society of functionally immortal beings. Six Wakes’ characters aren’t likeable in a traditional sense but I found them generally sympathetic, and the backgrounds go a long way towards making that balance work.
The Codicls set up around cloning also lend themselves to a lot of moral ambiguities, and several of these are explored at some length. It quickly becomes clear that the laws have been developed in response to crisis, rather than being thought out for the benefits of humanity; characters’ lives are full of unavoidable moral dilemmas which the laws seem to complicate even further. For example, early in the book we find out that the complete death of the previous crew wasn’t quite complete, as the captain is in a medical coma; legally, her new clone takes precedence and the crew are required to “recycle” the woman, but are reluctant to do so not only because she might have information on the murders if she wakes up, but also because she’s an actual person whose clone was woken up through no fault of her own. Because of their extended lifespans, several characters have direct links back to the beginning of cloning and the events leading up to the creation of the Codicls: it is no spoiler to say these totally suck for all involved.
The central mystery of the book builds up very well, and while the head-hopping does lend itself to a bit of contrived information withholding (where we are following a characters’ thoughts but they are worded in a vague enough way that we don’t find out what’s going on until later), it’s done in a way where the eventual reveals are too exciting for us to wonder why the audience weren’t let in on secrets earlier. As connections and information pile up, everything builds to a very satisfying conclusion which, again, I won’t in any way spoil here.
In conclusion, this book is really good and well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy without excessive transcontinental carrying and subsequent shoulder strain. Go forth, seek it out and you too can be solving clone mysteries in space!
*Shiny because Kinokuniya wrapped all of my pre-orders in protective plastic for free. Which I… like? Maybe?